Drones help researchers find unmarked tombs in the East End Cemetery

Richmond, Virginia (WWBT)-Empty Eyes are now helping researchers at the University of Richmond and VCU find unmarked graves in African-American cemeteries.

Richmond’s East End Cemetery has a unique, low-cost approach. This is a project that can be duplicated throughout the South to regain the historically underfunded and abandoned black graveyard.

The permanent silence of the East End Cemetery in Richmond is often destroyed by the sound of discovery. Volunteers have been scraping and cleaning brushes, leaves, and debris for years, pushing them through to find the forgotten burial grounds of black Americans.

Now we have a history of discovering new hams-drones fly over to see thousands of unmarked tombs, swallowed in time, and sometimes deliberately neglected.

“It’s basically a community chopped up by Jim Crow, and this project helps bring them all together,” Brian Palmer said.

This project is a team of the University of Richmond and VCU.

“I don’t think you can understand the history of Richmond without seeing a site like this, and it became especially clear as this site emerged for us in the last five to ten years. “Dr. Ryan Smith, a professor of history at VCU, said.

They used drone technology and geospatial mapping software to develop an easier and cheaper way to find long lost graveyards.

“There are many sites without markers. They don’t have tombstones. They are still covered and overgrown. This technology allows people who care for the graveyard to save those spaces. “Masu,” said Dr. Stephanie Spera, a professor of geography and environment at the University of Richmond.

Founded in 1897 by a private organization of major black citizens, the cemetery spans 16 acres and has an estimated 15,000 burials.

“I couldn’t walk here. Some families came here regularly to clean up the graves,” Palmer said.

The cemetery never received public funds for maintenance, and the devastation of time was a sacrifice. A forest grew around and in it so that the drone could be seen from above.

“We’ve been through the area over and over again,” Palmer walks through the graveyard.

Over the years, Palmer and the Volunteer Group’s Friends of East End Cemetery have discovered about 3,300 graveyards, primarily manually. This new approach using drones has already helped identify at least an additional 8,000 graveyards.

“We find tombstones that have been obscured or buried due to soil erosion for the growth of roots and vines. They have been swallowed by the Earth,” Palmer said.

The drone creates a 3D model of the surface of the earth. Drones cost hundreds of dollars. It’s not that expensive. Jump over the graveyard with a pattern and take a picture. The photos are then restored and placed in a computer, where researchers look for depressions in the ground. They are trying to identify where someone may have been buried.

“What the drone does helps to show the landscape itself where there were a lot of unmarked burials. And now we can see the patterns of burials and develop the graveyard in a whole new way. You can see it, “Smith said.

For example, GIS technology allows researchers to map where water collects in vegetation-covered landscape depressions.

“We’ve been flying around several other Richmond sites to see if the technique can be applied here, and where all the methods are online. Anyone can use it.” Said Spera.

This study was recently published in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology. They hope it helps others regain the history of the South.

“Recovering these tombstones that have been buried for 30, 40, or 50 years is like a visceral victory,” Palmer said.

Eventually, each new discovery will be added to the online database so that anyone in the country can find someone who has linked to their past.

“The neighborhood story will be a community story. The community story will be a city story. And it will be a national story. An American story,” Smith said.

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